Nerdy Cat Scuba Travels

A Cat Lovin' Engineer taking a career break by traveling, doing a divemaster internship, and diving around the world

Month: January 2017

Diving in Myanmar with Smiling Seahorse

At peace. That’s how I feel when I am underwater. Fishes swimming. Plants swaying to the swell of the ocean. Weightless. With only my air bubbles to tell me which way is up.

Outside of the water, I’m awkward. I don’t know what I want in life. I forgot something. Where am I going? Its too much to think about.  Diving is much easier.

My parents phoned me with hesitations in their voice. I imagine they think I’m venturing into Somalian pirated waters or something. Danger lurking over each wave. Is it safe? Where will you be? Is there cell service?

Yes, its safe. In the middle of nowhere. No connections to civilization whatsoever. No need to worry.

The Dive Group for Trip 3 – Hosted by the Smiling Seahorse

The Smiling Seahorse

MV Thai Sea – my home for the next 5 days. The owner, Frank, works as the dive instructor on the boat, and his wife does the business side. It’s a nice and small independent diving operation. The boat has room for 12 guests, with a ratio of 4 divers to one divemaster/instructor.

At first, I have my hesitations. I get on the boat and its French. Like Tres Tres Tres French. All the other divers minus one other diver- Choy, are French. Queue La Vie en Rose please.

Le Bienvenue speech. The Suisse dive instructor (Julien) translates. I’m somewhat irritated. My spoiled Americanness kicks in.  Why can’t everyone just speak English. Then I think about Trump and realize I’m being stupid. Relax.

The first night I’m a little cranky and shy, so I take some seasickness pills and go to sleep.

The next morning I wake up to the sound of “630! Dive briefing!”

I put on my swim suit and a shirt dress and head to the back of the boat. We form our groups and prepare for diving. Each day will follow this schedule -Dive. Eat Breakfast. Sleep. Dive. Eat Lunch. Sleep. Dive. Eat a snack. Relax. Dive. Eat Dinner. Drink.

The Dive Group: Me, Luc, Julien, Choy

A day later, I start warming up to my new French family. We exchange stories about all our travels and drink Richard, the drink of the Bordeaux French men. It’s Licorice tasting madness.  The 4 divers in their mid 50’s traveling sans wives brought a huge bottle of Richard for all to drink. The perfect recipe for laughter and fun. After some shots of Rum, a dance party with flashing lights forms on the top deck.

By the third day, all my stupid American prejudice about the French boat are gone. We exchange stories of the fish we see underwater while eating all the delicious treats the Thai team cooks for us. One day banana fritters and ice cream. Next Day, crepes with fruit.

Night falls and we jump in for another night dive. I float around flashing my light at fishes. A lonely barracuda passes by. I name him Mr.B. Mr.B is rather curious and swims towards me. Maybe a little too close. At first it feels fun, but now its makes me uneasy.   Circling me, I can feel his irritation.

My heart rate is up. I’m afraid to shine my light into the darkness. I’m unsure if I want to see Mr.B staring back at me. I swim over to my guide and hope that Mr.B disappears.

Moments later, Choy swims up next to me and Julian. He’s rubbing his shoulder. Forming a fist into a palm, Choy signals to me that a barracuda shoulder checked him. Or at least that’s what I interpret. It must be Mr.B. Like 2 young kids afraid to cross the street, we stay close to Julien and look both ways before swimming ahead.

Not seeing Mr.B anywhere, I start doing my own thing again. Rock here. Fish there. Mr.B. … WHAT? I quickly flash my light somewhere else. Swimming away,  scared.

A minute passes. I see a distant light shaking frantically. I swim over and Choy signals to me that he sees Mr.B again. We stay close together and search the seas. No sign of an imminent attack.

The dive ends and we pop up to the surface. Instantly we are two kids chatting to Julien about this barracuda. Julien laughs.

I have to laugh at myself. Like what is this fish going to do to me? I have a knife for Christ sake.  A big knife. One slice and its sashimi time.

The rest of the dives, we kept an eye out for Mr. B, but he must have found someone else to punk. Instead we saw more seahorses, octopus, puffer fish, and angel fish. Each time we circle reefs the song of the little mermaid pops into my head.  The schools of fish seem to freeze at times. Every clown fish is named Nemo. Every blue angel fish is named Dory.

Unable to explain the vastness of the sea, I’ll use my video to show my the rest of my trip experiences from under the sea:

Special Thanks to Luc for his photos and video. Thanks to Smiling Seahorse for providing such a great experience!

Who wants to go to Vietnam for 2 days?

Visiting Hanoi

A short $100 hop away from Bangkok. Reason to go? Coffee.

No really, I’ve been drinking this powered candy in Thailand that tastes like what coffee companies would make for kids if they wanted to get them interested early. Like those packs of gum that look like cigarettes. The complete look of a frothy cappuccino without the real punch. A piece of me dies each time I drink it.

Arriving to Hanoi airport around 9am, I order an uber and go to Old Town. The driver drops me off in the center of the city. Chaos. Frogger on Crack.

Crossing myself, I take a deep breath and go for it. I’m sure if I crossed a busy street like this in America without a cross walk someone would run me over. Over here, all the drivers seem to be on alert and slow down. After this crossing, everything else seems rather easy.

Its behind Here!

Like a speakeasy, the coffee shop is hidden in an alleyway behind some tailor. Once inside, the space opens up and you feel like you are inside, but outside at the same time. There’s a garden in the center of the house and the rooftop is open. A woman greets me and I already know what to order- “Ca phe sua da”. I walk up three or four flights of winding stairs to reach a beautiful roof top deck with a view of the lake. The first sip of caffeine gives me a new life.

Shortly after my relaxing coffee, I go to meet up with my couchsurfing host- Quynh. Vietnam is very affordable, so I didn’t need to really crash on someone’s couch, it was a means for me to make friends with locals. Sometimes traveling solo can be a bit lonely. Quynh recently got married and quit her job to start her own private tour company. Funny weekend. She told me she has to file a lot of paperwork to get the government to give her approval for her business. So for now she’s practicing with couchsurfing.

She takes me on her motorbike to Dai Kim and we eat Bun Cha. The meal was $1. Next, we go to Old Town. I walk about 6 miles wondering the streets in a mix of fake north face bags, nike gear, Hanoi shirts and souvenirs. Half way between my walk I decide to book at tour to Halong Bay for $30. My negotiation skills are pretty bad. Quynh stated that she pays 500,000 dong as a local, but I should expect to pay 700,000 dong. Later on the boat, I find out that everyone else paid 600,00 dong. Not that big of difference but still. American fail.  A

After Old town, we go to another coffee and get the famed” egg coffee” fantastic.

Halong Bay Tour for $30 – Is it worth it?

Halong Bay is about 3-4 hours bus ride away. As soon as I get on the bus, I’ve realized I booked the wrong tour. I sit in the back by the backpacking Brazilians. One of them has their flip flop off and their black dirty food dangling off his knee. Its constantly in the corner of my eye.

On the tour boat, I meet 2 Polish gay guys, 2 Koreans, and a Bosnian. We eat lunch together. We form a bond together when the guide tells me that my tour didn’t include a kayak tour because I didn’t pay extra. Everyone starts complaining for me. I simply tell him, I paid 100,000 dong extra than everyone else. So why doesn’t it include it? He finally gives up and throws me a coupon for kayaking. Saying- oh fine. Then take it. I would have skipped it, but I’m thankful that my new friends were sticking up for me.

We sail around the bay and take a trip into these beautiful caves. Since I’m on this crappy tour- my guide says nothing. So really I have no idea why there are caves at Halong Bay. I can’t tell you anything about it. James Bond movie. Thats about it.

A few hours later we finish the trip and start the long journey back.

Free City Tour Guide in Hanoi

The next day I have a private free tour around the city. Khanh Nguyen Phuong, or “Katie” for short, picks me up at 9am. We zip over to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and watch the changing of the guards. She tells me about the greatness of Ho Chi Minh and how he liberated Vietnam. I’m scared to ask her questions about communism and the conflict between the people that left versus people that stayed. Nowadays, I’m sure the dynamics have changed. You can see capitalism everywhere. I mean, just look at my Halong Bay Tour.

Next, we go the house where Obama stayed during his visit. This giant yellow French Mansion was supposed to be the “White House” but Ho Chi Minh dubbed it too fancy and stayed at the house down the way. The “Uncle Ho” house.  The house he lived in is traditional Northern Vietnam style. Reminds me of some of the houses in Thailand. One thing Katie points out: All the clocks in his home are set to 9:47; the exact time he passed away.

At one point, Katie asks my age and gives the most shocked face response to me. I can’t tell whether she thinks I am younger, or if she is concerned to be so old traveling alone. I too would look in horror as an old maid traveling solo. I find out she’s only 22. She’s lived in the Hanoi area all her life and has never traveled abroad. She hasn’t even been to Halong Bay.

We go to a few more sites around the city: Temple of Literature and the Hoa Lo Prison. In the prison, there’s a section on USA POWs. The image and impression I got was that the time in these prison camps was filled with Christmas celebrations and men playing ping pong. All the the photos show Vietnamese helping John McCain and treating his broken bones. Katie called it the “Hanoi Hilton Prison.”  Really. Her tour included a 5 minute talk about how well Americans were treated in prison. Despite the fact the next room showed men in shackles and solitary confinement rooms. Can someone say propaganda much?

Even though I didn’t agree with the politics, the tour itself was really informative and I enjoyed Katie’s young and dedicated spirit. She is a college graduate in Interpretation and told me about the lengthy process on getting the job as a free tour guide, Lots of tests and interviews. She’s a little shy- but at the same time- is quick to yell at solicitors to get out here. Just hanging out with her makes me wish I was 22 again.

I didn’t really go into depth about the food. But really. Its insane on how good the food is here. Most of the time I spent about $1 a meal. For lunch alone, I ordered 4 dishes and began stuffing myself like a little Fois Gras Duck. Must eat everything.  Full of carbs, I felt accomplished and flew back to Bangkok.

Till next time Vietnam…

 

 

 

Siem Reap in 2 days or less | Top Travel Recommendations

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Siem Reap – Visa

Christmas day and I’m feeling good from the Christmas lunch celebration. In the evening I catch a flight to Siem Reap. Looking for a pen to fill out the immigration form, I started up a short chat with my neighbor, US foreign affairs employee in Myanmar. We exchanged travel stories and our thoughts about Thailand. Krabi Good, Phuket, Bad. Tourist sites, local sites. Stuff Like that.

The plane lands and I do the Asian Hustle. Meaning, I jump into the aisle and scramble to the front.  No standing and waiting for anyone to get their bag from the overhead compartment. Normally I would be courteous, but really, this is the norm. Don’t expect anyone to give you space while you get your stuff.

In the immigration line. Passport- check. Photo- check. Money… uh where’s all my money? PANIC.

I really shouldn’t be allowed to travel anywhere. Between checking in and getting into this immigration line, I lose all my $20 bills. I mentally start retracing my steps… hmmm.

I think it must have been when I was pulling my passport out for all the different checks between the check in gate, the immigration line, the ticket boarding process, the visa application forms on the plane… the possibilities are endless.

I’m really starting to panic now. How am I going to get into this darn country? Why am I always like this? AHHHHHH.

By chance, my middle seat neighbor comes along -“what’s wrong?”.

I lost all my money. My face is flushed between sweat and redness. He pulls out a $50 bill and hands it to me.

“Here’s some money. You can pay me back later.” WHAT. How are people so nice and trusting? If there’s anything that I’ve learned from travelling, its that there are more nice people in the world than scam artists. Let yourself trust people. This guy doesn’t know if I’m a serial killer or a drug smuggler, yet he had the trust to give me money without knowing if I would ever see him again.

Saved by $50, I pay for my visa and then wait in another queue.

Here’s my email address, my google voice number, my thai phone number, and whatever other promises I can think of so that he can believe that I will return the money.

Cleared from the airport, I find my name on a hotel sign and a nice man waiting to take me to my hotel. The middle seat guy meets his friends and we part ways.

Tourist Itinerary Angkor Wat and more

The next morning- Nina’s friend, Andy arrives from Singapore. He’s in full blown cold mode. Determined to “power through” it, we go to a pharmacy and get some drugs to hide his misery. The first day itinerary in Cambodia is this:

  1. Angkor National Museum
  2. Old City Market
  3. Lunch somewhere tripadvisor recommends
  4. Walk around some more
  5. Relax at hotel – swimming
  6. Getting our Angkor Wat tickets
  7. Sunset tour at a Temple
  8. Night Market
  9. Dinner at Khmer Kitchen
  10. Tuk tuk back to the hotel

Andy “Powering Through” it – Tuk Tuk Ride

I have to give Andy credit. For his American vacation, he squeezed 5 cities into 2 weeks. I forget that Americans only get a few weeks for vacation, so they have to pack everything into a short period. I hate that abour corporate America. Why can’t we relax more? Even our holidays are stressful.

Next day, 430am: Pitch black and quiet. Our hotel gives us our breakfast goody bags and off we go.

I use my powerbank’s flashlight so we don’t eat shit on the stone walkway to the temple. By 530am, all of us tourists are huddled around the reflection ponds. I huddle in my Asian squat and curse the world as bugs continue to bite my legs.

Snap. Snap. Snap. I take about 100 photos. One of them has to be ok.

 

Sun is up – Let the temple extravaganza begin. Most people do the “small tour” which includes the top four temples. Not being shy from a challenge- I arrange a big and small tour that hits up 10 temples. Essentially all of the temples close to Angkor Wat.  To say that there are some Chinese tourists is an understatement. There are about 20 tour buses sitting in the parking lots across from the temples. People posing in front of all the faces. The Hot sun beating down on us. The mixture of sweat and dust creating an icky sticky mess.

11 hours later, we did it. All the damn temples.


Back at the hotel, I run, jump and plunge into the pool. Ahhhh. The soot of the dirty temple dust washes off. Andy passes out sitting upright in the hotel lobby.

 

Siem Reap. Out.

 

Note- I was able to see my $50 guardian angel in the airport on my way out and return the money. Cheers to friendly strangers.